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‘The best untold story in Canada’: JP Gladu on how First Nations communities and the energy industry are partnering for responsible prosperity

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Podcast & Video

The Hub is partnering with Pathways Alliance to promote greater awareness and discussion of the goal of decarbonizing Canada’s oil sands production to reach net zero emissions from operations by 2050. Through a six-part podcast series produced for Pathways, Hub readers and listeners will get the latest analysis and insights of industry experts and leaders who are acting on Pathways’ ambitious call to action. For more information on Pathways visit pathwaysalliance.ca. Are you leading an industry group with an important public policy message? If so be sure to check out The Hub’s new digital marketing platform here.  

This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Rudyard Griffiths in discussion with JP Gladu, former President and CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, founder and President of Mokwateh, and current member of the board at Suncor. The two discuss the increasing partnerships between industry and Indigenous communities, the pathway to responsible development in the energy industry, and how Canada can become a model for other global jurisdictions.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, or Spotify.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: JP, welcome to the Hub Dialogues.

JEAN PAUL GLADU: Rudyard, it’s fantastic to be here. Thanks for having me.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Likewise, looking forward to this conversation with you, exploring the Indigenous dimension of a lot of the issues and ideas that Pathways Alliance is grappling with. It’s a critical perspective to get on this conversation. So a privilege to talk with you today. Let’s start big picture, JP, for the benefit of our listeners. How would you characterize the state of play right now within Canada’s Indigenous communities with regards to these larger ambitions around net zero reducing carbon emissions from operations? How is this being perceived? What’s the perspective on this? I love your insights.

JEAN PAUL GLADU: Great. That’s a big question, and I would say that I always to start off. We’re not a monolith. Of course, Indigenous nations have different political social economic standings and aspirations. But I would say, largely, what ties us together is as mothers, caretakers, we’ve been stewards of these lands for a very long time, and the alignment of getting to net zero, reducing our impact in the environment, cleaner air, cleaner water responsible resource development, that’s something that we can absolutely all get behind. It’s something that I believe Canada needs more of. And I think the global community is looking more towards Indigenous nations across the world. I mean, we are about 5 percent of the population globally. There’s a figure of over 80 percent of the biospheres in our territories, and there’s a big responsibility with that.

And we think of seven-generational thinking. We have the knowledge base and land practices that are coming to the forefront. And so there’s a really great alignment. And many communities, particularly in Alberta, Northeastern B.C., Saskatchewan, have been very tied to oil and gas development for their economic well-being. Managing poverty is something that our communities have been doing for a very long time, and I can tell you that is absolutely not the place where we desire to be. Government handouts are not fun for anybody, particularly our communities. So now communities that are in those spaces, in those regions, have a familiarity with the oil and gas sector. And it’s really interesting because other parts of the country haven’t had that experience. And sometimes the conversations, they start to vary a little bit as you get away from the epicentre of oil and gas development.

But we’re starting to see more of NBC now with LNG. So communities are like Chief Crystal Smith, who is like, “We need this oil and gas development to make sure we can offset coal production and everything else.” And empowers our community. So there’s been a rallying, I believe nationally, not again, and we’re not a monolith and not across the board, but I think Indigenous nations see that we have a very important role to play in the next stages of our energy future. And if there’s one awesome statement that I’ve really enjoyed using, it originated from the First Nations major projects coalition conference a couple of years ago, which is that all paths to net zero run through traditional territories of Indigenous communities. And that is an incredible place to be.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Nice. You make an important point, JP, because I think there’s a perception again, and it’s part of that idea that communities are monolithic and there isn’t a diversity of view that there are many First Nations groups that have positive views around resource development. And that this is seen as a strategy of economic empowerment that, as you say, breaks a relationship with the government, which we know historically has been troubled to say the least. Maybe talk a little bit more just about how Indigenous communities are thinking about economic development because, as you know, part of Pathways’ plan here is that there’s going to have to be a lot of infrastructure created around this goal of net zero from operations by 2050 to realize that goal. We’re going to need to, in a sense, gear up to achieve a big national project with a lot of infrastructure and a lot of new development. I just want to get your sense of how that’s all coming together from an Aboriginal perspective.

JEAN PAUL GLADU: It is an incredibly exciting time to be First Nation Métis or Inuit. Being Indigenous in this country has evolved significantly and quite rapidly in the last decade since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, since the 215-original mass grave. Canadians have finally woken up a little bit here. I don’t have to explain what a residential school or say that both my grandmothers were residential school survivors, and that has impact. And so, it’s great that there’s now a platform for more communication conversations that are happening in our country. And what Canada’s finally—and industry’s gotten it. Not all industry but I think largely many of the large resource companies fully understand that if they’re going to advance their projects, if they’re going to advance their infrastructure, particularly in Crown lands, well, those are also all traditional territories, our communities, that they have to have strong relationships with Indigenous people and communities.

Now, what do those relationships look like is really the crux of this conversation, and the evolution, as I’m alluding to, of this relationship is really important. Canada’s competitive edge now is really, I believe, and many of us believe, allies in the relationship with Indigenous communities. And maybe just premise it with Indigenous communities and people can advance an agenda so far, industry can advance an agenda so far. But when you tie a strong relationship based on reciprocity and respect, I’m going to dig in a little bit deeper into that. With Indigenous and industry going to governments, that is a very potent mix to get stuff done. And so, what is competitive? What does it look like? And it is no longer just engineering the heck out of an idea or a project than going to a community and say, “What do you think of this? This is going to be great for you. Oh, just trust us; we’re going to get some jobs out of this.”

Well, no, that’s not the way that you actually build a relationship and trust. Now it’s about: How can we make sure that your community is a true, equitable partner in this project? Because this runs through your territories, and we recognize and that we are all treaty people and that, except in B.C., of course, that’s another subject. But we recognize that your longstanding history and the premise that we need to share is important. And so we’re going to create these equitable opportunities for communities to participate in these projects. So why is that so important? Equity is a form of consent. If you and I invest in something, the last thing we’re going to do is go beat up our project. We’re going to do whatever we can to support that project if it’s done in a great way.

And what does that look like? Well, it’s making sure that Indigenous communities are engaged from the very beginning. That we’re part of the design. We’re part of the construction, that we’re part of the operation, that we’re part of decommissioning and wetland reclamation. And that seven-generational thinking is brought into all of that. And then from a regulatory process. And one of the examples that I like to raise is around the Ring of Fire in Northern Ontario. The three First Nations largely are supporting that project. The core communities are supporting that idea of a road to access the mining area, while it’s actually communities that are helping co-lead the regulatory process, the environmental assessment.

And when we get more Indigenous leadership and environmental assessments, that helps us get through the regulatory processes that we need to get through. And then, lastly, we’ve all felt it. In every sector, where did the human resources go? Where did the human capital go? Well, much of that human capital and much of the world, and we’re even seeing in China now, where population is starting to decrease. But when you look at Canada, the Indigenous population is the fastest-growing demographic in the country. That’s our human capital. That’s what’s going to provide certainty and cost-effectiveness to the way that we advance our projects. So when we think again about our competitive nature, industry is starting to really understand that we are going to advance projects quicker, they’re going to be more sustainable. And from an ESG and I perspective, the Indigenous in the environment, the social, and the government—we can talk more about that is going to be absolutely crucial in the way that we advance projects together in this country.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Now, JP, you’ve written about it, and you know about some groups, a lot of them outside of Canada, that are very aggressive in promoting messages of really no resource development and painting a picture, at least in terms of a lot of public perceptions in Canada, that there’s a consensus around this amongst First Nations communities. And I guess when it comes to something like these complicated large-scale technologies like carbon sequestration, carbon capture, is there a worry here, JP, about your voice, about the voices of Indigenous communities getting drowned out by outside actors? That may be for the best of intentions, possibly ill-informed, but for the best of intentions are pursuing, in a sense, a zero-development mandate on behalf of their foundations or on behalf of their advocacy groups or causes. How do we get through this? How do we go forward when those outside voices are quite powerful, they’ve got a lot of money, and they’re out there trying to shape public opinion right now?

JEAN PAUL GLADU: Yeah. I mean, that is certainly a worry. And off the top, Indigenous people are quite capable of speaking for ourselves and that needs to be the bottom line in public policy and sentiment. If you really want to understand the issues, go to the communities to understand; we don’t need and they’re often called equal colonialists within our communities. Others speaking for us. And certainly, I think some are very well-intentioned. I think that, no, we all want to make sure that our future is clean, but we also need energy, and we also need to make sure that our economy doesn’t fall because that creates, as we all know, significant impact in the way that we’re able to live. But what I’ve seen is that our collective voice in Canada, and again, not a monolith; there are a lot of Indigenous people as well that are opposed to any kind of development as well. But I think, as a large part, a large number of us support.

And the Indigenous Resource Network is a really great organization to check out. John Desjarlais is their executive director, CEO. And back when I was involved with the group more intimately, we went out and did this Environics polling. If you believe in science, well, you believe in polling science. It actually shows that 65–67 percent of Indigenous people in rural areas actually support resource development. So you’ve got to go to the source to understand there’s so much misinformation out there, but it does worry me that these, and you’re reflecting on maybe that article in the Toronto Star that I put out. I picked a fight with the Incredible Hulk and—

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Mark Ruffalo.

JEAN PAUL GLADU: Mr. Ruffalo and DiCaprio, and even our own Neil Young. They’re getting a snapshot view. And that article, what I encouraged them, like I’m encouraging folks now, is you just come to our communities and understand us. Don’t take one voice or one perspective without digging deeper to really formulate these strong opinions. I mean, it’s unfortunate that one Hollywood voice outweighs the voice of a Crystal Smith in our own country, who was an incredible Indigenous woman, or Chief Sharleen Gale, up in Treaty 8 territory. It’s incumbent on Canadians to do the work to understand, but I think going back to the industry’s Indigenous relationships, having those partnerships reflected in the recent Enbridge deal, 23 First Nation MAT Communities are actually equity owners in a project.

And think about the socioeconomic impact that’s going to have in community as well as the partnership. When Enbridge goes forward now, they can point to this project, “Go listen, we’re not just walking the walk; we’re talking the talk. Look what we’re doing.” Or another story I like to share quite often is around the Clearwater deal. Again, the non-native fisher people were—the racists, quite frankly, were burning shacks, burning boats, burning traps because they were afraid of the idea of what a moderate living meant for the Mi’kmaq people and the fisheries. Well, advance that story a year forward. And now the Mi’kmaq own 50 percent of the Clearwater deal. Now, those racist fisherpeople now have to sell their fish to the First Nations that they were harassing the year before. Canada’s got to pay attention to this storyline because this, across sectors, is starting to really proliferate, and it’s all based on good relationships.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: There’s a movement towards increasing ownership. So as you say, equity creates real partnership because you’re co-invested in the success of these natural resource, oil and gas, and other projects. That investment, in turn, feeds back into the community. It creates economic opportunity, it lessens dependency on government, which is something everybody would like less of, not more. So that’s an interesting take because it’s happening, JP. But I think the perception often on the outside to the under-informed—I won’t say ill-informed, but the under-informed—is that there is a more of a monolithic view against development, a deep skepticism about the industry and its intentions. But what I’m hearing from you is, at least, as it relates to, as you say, the diversity of First Nations communities, which have all kinds of different perspectives and views, but generally there’s a feeling that something, JP, has changed that maybe you’re saying industry’s changed—that there’s a new awareness on the part of industry. Is that where the shift is occurring?

JEAN PAUL GLADU: I believe industry has shifted significantly across the board. I mean, we’ve had longstanding progressive relationships and procurement activities. In Suncor, last year alone, we spent $3.4 billion on the Indigenous economy. We got 40, 46 Petrol-Can stations across the country with Indigenous communities. There are real great partnerships happening—longstanding partnerships. But now it’s the advancement through equity. I believe, and I was listening to this panel many years ago in Toronto, and they had this prominent environmental leader and this prominent oil and gas leader. I’m not going to mention who they were. And the competence was like, “Listen, these industries don’t get up and figure how are we going to destroy the environment today.” And I don’t believe well-meaning intention, environmental organization, “Okay, how are we going to destroy the economy today?”

It’s about how are we going to advance responsible development. And its next iteration of energy development, and we recognize we’ve got to transition to more of a greener economy. We’ve got these massive targets, net zero, that’s going to take so much resource, that’s going to take so many partnerships, and new policy, new way of doing things. If we’re going to meet these targets, we’re going to have to think and act differently. And companies are acting differently because now we’re talking about carbon capture utilization systems, hydrogen. Well, communities are part of this process now. How do we create space for Indigenous communities to participate in that whole life cycle of a project from the inception, the Pathways Alliance or talking to the communities? How are we going to build this together? How are we going to operate it together? The whole ecosystem, I believe, has changed significantly because we’ve woken up.

We can’t get back to fighting in the trenches anymore. That’s not going to get us to where we need to go. It’s about how do we create true partnerships together. Indigenous communities, largely, are stepping into that space with vigour across many of the energy projects, both wind, solar, hydro. We’re having conversations around SMRs, hydro developments, transmission lines. Communities are right in there now. I think this is the best untold story in Canada yet, and with Canadians, they just don’t understand how embedded we are in these conversations now and how this is going to transform our energy sectors and how this is going to transform our communities, and how this is going to be just the way that we do business in the future. And I think this model should be celebrated more globally. There are Indigenous communities around the world that can and want to participate in this change. It’s an exciting time. And there’s a lot of work to do.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: That’s where I wanted to go with you next is the global piece. To what extent are the developments that are happening in Canada with increasing engagement and active participation in it since the equity participation, the co-ownership of Indigenous communities in Canada? Can that be modelled for other jurisdictions around the world? Are people watching Canada? Is there an opportunity for us to lead here, not only on carbon capture, carbon sequestration, but the tactics that we bring to the strategy? It seems to me there’s a whole lot of additional value that could be mined out of this, proverbially, mined out to this initiative for net zero emissions from oil sands operations by 2050.

JEAN PAUL GLADU: Yeah, it’s funny you say mined. A group of Indigenous leaders, including myself early spring this year went over to London, U.K. to meet with the mining sector and as well as the finance sector. They’re looking at Canada and going—we get a storyline from the government about what Indigenous relationships are, and we get a little bit deeper of a story from the mining companies themselves that we’re investing in, but we need to really understand what the Indigenous perceptions are. And it was the first of its kind to have this U.K. Indigenous-led Canadian delegation to go that we were surrounded by some of the biggest finance firms and mining companies in the world because they were very keen to know our story and our perspective because they’re only getting part of it. And so yes, global finance and firms are looking into mining oil and gas, are looking to better understand the relationship because they’re starting to understand that their capital is at risk if the relationships are not strong.

But they’re all starting to see that when you get those relationships and now, we’re talking about equity, right? Now, how do you create capital for Indigenous communities to access? So just a personal story. So I just built my house on my reserve, and I can’t leverage my asset. I had to build it with cash because I can’t get a mortgage because it’s on Indian Act lands. Unless I have the First Nation Land Management Act, which we have, we’re working through it to build equity over time. Our communities have not been able to do that until relatively recently. So how do we get access to capital, and create multi-generational wealth if we can’t even leverage our own assets on our own lands, which are held in trust by the government? So getting access to affordable capital has been one of the biggest challenges that our communities have been facing these days.

So organizations like the Alberta Indigenous Opportunities Corporation and their billion-dollar fund on that Enbridge deal was fantastic because they backstopped 250 million. They went to the markets. BMO was able to hedge the debt through the banks. And there’s a lot of certainty around that project. They got that deal done in six months. Incredible. Now there was no deal risk because bitumen was flowing one way. The diligences were flowing another way. There was no construction risk. Mind you, we’ve got to figure that out. But for communities that didn’t have access to that capital, it’d be very difficult to actually participate in a project because equity requires money. So we’re thinking, and there’s a lot of pressure, I think, on the federal government and more provincial governments to raise the idea of these instruments to support community.

And so once you backstop through these types of capital pools or the Canadian infrastructure bank is thinking about a larger pool, I hope, then these firms that come over from London are going, “Okay, government’s in. We’re in now.” Money’s never the issue. It’s the relationship that is the issue. And there are trillions of dollars out there to invest in this energy transition and doing things better in the oil and gas sector. But if we can’t get the relationships right, then we can’t get the capital. And capital is it’s a symbiotic relationship, so we got to get better at these relationships.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Yeah, it’s a key point. I think Hernando de Soto, the economist really impressed on me and many others, this idea that if assets aren’t papered and you can’t take those assets and, in a sense, lever them, borrow against them, wealth creation is extremely difficult. And he, I think convincingly, argued there’s a whole field of development theory behind it that a lot of the problems in third-world economies are precisely that, that no one has title to the house or they can’t figure out the title. So no one can leverage that asset. So you can’t borrow against it. So you can’t start businesses; you can’t find a Pathway to some form of greater financial resiliency and independence. So I really like this idea in a sense of ESG. I like adding to that thinking about what is ethical investing, what are ethical partnerships as an Indigenous component. And do you think that’s, JP, where ultimately, we could be headed? Are there policy frameworks or things that you think governments and regulators could do right now to push all of us more in that direction to really create an economy where First Nations people have all of the benefits of ownership? And as you say, the benefits that first non-First Nations communities have enjoyed, which are intergenerational wealth and intergenerational wealth transfer and accumulation, which we know are just critical to long-term prosperity and, again, resiliency?

JEAN PAUL GLADU: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I think government’s role is to create the space through policy to make sure that these relationships can establish and you create these on-ramps for being able to paper your wealth so that you can get into the economic stream. And I don’t have the answers to that, but what I do believe is that the relationship between the industries, whether that’s mining, oil, gas, forestry, fisheries, grains, et cetera, they recognize that their future is dependent, I think, largely on the relationships with the communities. Again, partnering and making room in their procurement, making room in their advancement of their future projects, and even past projects like the Enbridge deal, again, for Indigenous communities, is going to be a really important segue into improving the life of Indigenous Canadians.

Unfortunately, still many communities suffer on all sorts of fronts. And the way forward is through business development in all sorts of sectors. So to create these policies and these instruments, I think we have most of it right now. We’ve got examples of major billion-dollar projects that are now happening across the country in various sectors. Peeling apart the components of what those look like, again, it’s going to take the policy instruments like the government, backstops, and provincial. We talk about regulatory. Well, we’ve got to get better at the regulatory process because it’s very cumbersome. There’s a lot of overlap. There’s a lot of uncertainty. We can’t build anything in 15 years when the states can do it in two or three years. We’ve got to get better at our infrastructure development in this country.

So I think all the components are there, and then the willingness of Indigenous communities to step into that space too is going to be dependent on do we see ourselves in it or we’re going to the old game again where we’re on the outside looking in. That’s not going to happen anymore. From an Indigenous community perspective, what I’ve seen working really well, and it’s becoming incredibly commonplace now, is communities creating economic development corporations that manage the business aspects of communities. And actually, seeing more Indigenous communities working together in multifaceted, very complex governance systems where they come together as one body to work with an Enbridge as an example. There are a lot of—we have so many of the components that are working, and now it’s just like, “Let’s figure out how to make these interconnects better and do more of it.” And we need more capital for our communities to be able to participate. And again, it’s got to be affordable.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Great. Important and positive messages to end this conversation on, JP. Thank you so much for giving us your time and insights today. I really enjoyed connecting with you. I’ve learned so much, and I know our listeners have too. So again, I greatly appreciate this dialogue.

JEAN PAUL GLADU: Thank you so much. I appreciate it as well.

This content was produced as part of a paid promotional partnership with Pathways Alliance.

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